Updated March 5 at 10 a.m. to clarify link policy, and at 12:20 p.m. to address privacy concerns.
Google Health has introduced a new feature that lets people share their online health records with designated doctors, friends, and family members.
Google said the move is in response to people's concerns that caregivers and loved ones might not be up-to-date on all the details of a patient's health situation, especially in the event of an emergency.
Sameer Samat, director of product management at Google, explained his personal impetus behind the new feature in a company blog post on Wednesday:
Just a few years ago, my father suffered a minor heart attack and was sent to the ER. I arrived on the scene in a panic, and was asked what medications he was taking. To my surprise, I had no clue. If my father had a Google Health account, and had shared his profile with me, I would have been up-to-date on his current medications.
Along with the sharing feature, Google added a graphing feature that lets people enter lab results and visually track trends in their medical test results, such as their cholesterol levels.
Recognizing the sensitive nature of sharing health records, Google said it has built in several security measures to preserve privacy. Users choose who can view their histories, and the link to the patient's profile will work only in connection with those people's e-mail addresses--meaning the link won't work if it is forwarded to a third party. Users can also decide what information they want to share, and those allowed to view the profile will not have the ability to edit the data. Users will also be able to see exactly who has reviewed the profile.
However, one security measure that is a bit confusing is a feature that restricts the usability lifespan of the e-mailed link to only 30 days.
Unless the user is diligent about regularly sending links to loved ones, this protection could negate the feature's value in the event of an emergency. While this was initially interpreted by some to refer to a continuous process of sending e-mail links to partners, it apparently applies only to the initial invitation.
Google also announced a feature that lets users print wallet- and letter-size hard copies of their profile, including medications, allergies, conditions, and treatments. But the value of these printouts may be questionable if they are not updated regularly.
Users concerned with privacy should also note that Google Health isn't regulated by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a federal law designed to protect patients' privacy. Google also admits that some employees will have access to users' records.
"Within Google, only the people who are operating and improving Google Health have access to user information, and they are bound by strict policies to not disclose this information to others, either within Google or to the outside world," Google said in a help page.
Google Health, which is dedicated to the digitization of health records, launched in May 2007. Microsoft has also planned a medical records service called HealthVault. President Obama, meanwhile, has made it clear that he plans to make digital health records part of his health care reform agenda.